In February 2019, the National Science Board authorized the National Science Foundation (NSF) to begin a comprehensive rebuilding of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Located in the Ross Sea, McMurdo is the U.S. Antarctic Program’s (USAP) logistics hub and the largest of the three stations the nation operates on the continent.
The station is being rebuilt under the Antarctic Infrastructure and Modernization for Science (AIMS) project, which will be one of the first major infrastructure modernization projects at McMurdo Station since its establishment in 1956. Over the next 10 years, the project will help update the station to make it energy and operationally efficient.
According to the Antarctic Sun, the continent’s NSF-funded newspaper, the $355 million project will include 370,000 square feet of new construction and plans to consolidate the research station’s roughly 100 buildings into just six primary structures.
“A world-class science program is the primary expression of the nation’s geopolitical presence in Antarctica and helps to ensure the U.S. keeps a leading role in Antarctic Treaty System deliberations,” said Kelly Falkner, director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs in a statement announcing the project. “Through AIMS, this historic site for scientific research will gain the capabilities that will allow it to continue in its role as a leading hub for scientific endeavors.”
PREPARING THE EQUIPMENT
Leidos, Reston, Virginia, a defense, aviation, information technology and biomedical research company, was chosen as the prime contractor for the AIMS project. Responsible for all “on the ice” operations that help make research possible, Leidos works for the NSF to introduce cost-effective infrastructure for managing work stations, medical facilities and facility communications.
With recorded temperature extremes as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Leidos acquired equipment retrofitted for extreme cold from Metso, Tampere, Finland, to make the project possible. The seller was Aurora, Colorado-based Wagner Equipment Co.
“After a comparison of several equipment manufacturers, Metso and Wagner offered a freeze-proofed crushing solution with the best value,” says David DesAutels, Leidos’ Antarctic support contract fleet analyst, in a Metso release. “The equipment, specifically designed for cold conditions, will be maintained by personnel with close proximity in New Zealand.”
Leidos procured a Lokotrack LT106 jaw crusher, LT200HP cone crusher and ST3.8 mobile screen for the job, all of which will be used for crushing ground materials for the new buildings.
According to Richard Sack, a crushing and screening machine sales representative at Wagner Equipment, Metso made variety of changes to the equipment to stand up to the rigors of the job, including installing a central junction box to plug into external generators when not in use to help heat fluids. The company also insulated all hoses, installed arctic belting and modified units to operate on Jet A-1 aviation fuel since it is suitable for cold conditions and the only fuel source available at the site.
“Every part [of the equipment] sensitive to cold has been fitted with immersion heaters and extra insulation. The selected oils and other fluids are suitable for the Antarctic climate, and the specially manufactured conveyor belts run even in extremely cold weather,” Marko Salonen, project manager at Metso’s Aggregates Equipment business area, says in a release.
ARRIVING AT THE SITE
Weather conditions in Antarctica can pose substantial logistical challenges for a construction project the scope of McMurdo Station. Another substantial challenge is with material and equipment availability since supplies only arrive once a year; thus, materials that are needed must be ordered a year in advance so they can be delivered on the annual supply ship, which departs in October.
When considering the lead time between being awarded the contract and delivering the equipment, Metso made sure Leidos had what it needed to work on the project amid unforeseen challenges, including shipping additional wear parts and a recommended spare parts list with data to support maintenance.
“[Metso] prepared the maintenance and spare parts service in such a way that everything conceivable can be anticipated and serviced independently on-site,” says Sack. According to Salonen, even the packaging materials were chosen in a way that ensured nothing unnecessary would be transported to the unique Antarctic environment to minimize waste.
The crushing plants began their long journey in Finland, where the equipment was then shipped to Germany. From there, it was taken to Port Hueneme, California, where it travelled onward to Antarctica via Christchurch, New Zealand.
The final leg of the journey was completed by two vessels carrying a total of 35 earthwork machines. These ships were hardened to withstand the icy waters of the region, but were accompanied by a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to ensure safe delivery and return.
The globe-trotting journey finally came to an end earlier this year when McMurdo took receipt of the equipment in February.
Under the AIMS project, Leidos is required to produce roughly 150,000 cubic yards of engineered fill to support construction and expansion projects throughout the base, such as for docks, runways, building foundations and roadways.
The first two buildings slated for construction are the Vehicle Equipment Operations Center (VEOC), which will serve as the main maintenance and repair facility for McMurdo’s varied fleet of vehicles, and a new 285-bed lodging facility.
The largest component of the project is the Core Facility, a multi-operational facility that will house station management and administration, field communications, food service and dining, and food warehousing functions. Once that is completed, construction will begin on the Emergency Operations Center, which will house the fire department, medical facilities and recreational space.
In overseeing the start of the AIMS project, Leidos operated the Metso machines for two months before ceasing operations. Due to the extreme conditions of Antarctica, the equipment can only be used during the Southern Hemisphere summer, which lasts from October to April.
With a couple months of operations completed, Leidos reports they have been pleased with the results.
“So far, Metso’s equipment is getting the job done beyond our expectations,” says DesAutels.
Before stopping for the winter, Leidos was feeding basalt of unknown hardness less than 24 inches into the LT106 jaw crusher for primary reduction to less than 6 inches, with the LT200HP cone crusher providing final reduction to less than 2 inches, with a specific particle size distribution encompassing 11 different gradations. The hard basalt was generated from an area near the station.
To meet the demands of the AIMS project as safely, timely and efficiently as possible, the equipment provided is designed to be most optimal by feeding materials into the Lokotrack LT106 jaw crusher and then running this into the Lokotrack ST3.8 mobile screen to pull off the material already meeting the specification.
The oversize material is then sent into the LT200 cone plant to crush the material down to the desired size. According to Metso, this is a closed-circuit configuration that will allow for consistent high production requirements given the extreme conditions.
“We aim to work 16 hours a day and produce 250 tons of 63 mm crushed stone per hour,” says Jeffrey Huffman, Leidos Antarctic support contract operations manager. “We also want to include some degree of fines to gain more compact material for the buildings’ foundations.”
Metso’s equipment will be used for three years, with work on the project expected to be completed in 2026. When finished, the new McMurdo station will save the National Science Foundation millions of dollars in operations and maintenance costs while also improving the living and working conditions for staff, says Senior Advisor for the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs Scot Arnold in a USNI News article.
“Project success will be defined by meeting production goals without undue environmental impacts or risk to personnel,” explained DesAutels. “To date, the equipment has served us well in both those critical elements.”